Thursday, February 26, 2009

Secret American Empire - Ch.3


I descended the steps. The sedan stopped in front of the doorway. It idled there for a moment and then inched forward, its occupant apparently not liking what he saw or not finding the person he sought. I tried to peer through the car's windows, but found only the reflection of the restaurant's neon sign. Suddenly, the driver gunned the engine and sped away.

When I reached the restaurant, its interior was obscured by thin curtains. I pressed my face against the glass. It was dark inside, except for small globes of flickering light that I took for candles. I stepped to the door.

It opened into a darkened room with a lantern on each of a dozen or so tables. A quick survey of the ones where guests were seated suggested cultural diversity: There were Asians and Europeans or Americans.

A Chinese lady bowed to me. “Welcome,” she said. “Good evening. Dinner for one?” Her accent suggested she had studied with a British teacher. She led me into the room.

I froze, disbelieving what I saw.

The woman from the pool, my lady, the person I had tried so hard to locate, sat at a table with another Asian woman, staring back at me. Then she smiled and beckoned. The hostess, observing her, led me to her table. “Friends?”

“Yes.” The woman from the pool did not hesitate. “Will you join us please?”

The hostess pulled out an empty chair, bowed again, and walked away.

I was reeling with confusion. “Where's your husband?” I asked. The two women exchanged glances and broke into laughter. “I'm not married,” she said at last.

“But the man at the pool.”

“A business associate.” Stifling a giggle, she indicated the chair. “Please have a seat. We just ordered. More than enough for all of us- at least to begin. Or are you determined to done alone?” Her English was close to perfect, with just the hint of an accent.

I sat down. One part of me could not believe my good fortune. Another felt apprehensive, as though I were involving myself in something illicit. A waiter came over and set a small cup in front of me.

The lady from the pool pointed at a little porcelain pot. “Sake?” We have been drinking lots. This is our night to let go. Very good sake here.” She filled my cup. “Cheers.” Our three cups clinked. “Oh yes,” she said, wiping her lips with a white linen napkin. “How rude. I'm Nancy and this is Mary.”

“John.” I shook hands with each.

“I've observed you at the pool, John. I waited for you to come say hello. You seem very lonely and nice, but I think you're terribly shy. Or perhaps...” She leaned toward me, so close I could smell the liquor on her breath. “You're madly in love with a wife.”

It was my turn to laugh. “Getting divorced.”

“In luck,” Mary said. “Here's to broken marriages.” She raised her glass. She spoke with a similar accent, a bit heavier than Nancy's.

The waiter arrived with several heaping plates of food. As we ate, we exchanged information about our backgrounds. Nancy and Mary shocked me when they described themselves as geishas. I admitted that I thought those days were long gone; they assured me that I was mistaken. “Oil,” Mary said, “revived this ancient art. Different, yes, but it's alive and well today.”

Their pregnant Taiwanese mothers were abandoned by their fathers. American army officers assigned to their country after World War II. The women turned their newborn daughters over to a Japanese businessman; he arranged for foster care and their schooling, which included extensive lessons in English as well as in US history and culture. When they reached maturity, they went to work for him.

“You've probably seen the women on the street out there,” Nancy pointed toward the pedestrian bridge outside the curtained window. “That could be us. We're lucky.” She went on to say that the Japanese businessman paid them well and seldom dictated how they should act or specified what they should do. “He asks for results. That's all. Up to us how we get them.” She poured us each more sake.

“What sort of results?”

“How naive,” Mary said. “He must be new here.”

I admitted that it was my first trip, my initial assignment, adding that I was eager to learn.

“We're happy to teach you,” Nancy proclaimed. “You're a gem in our world. But we may ask for something in return. Not tonight, but sometime.”

“At your service.” I tried to appear nonchalant.

They sounded more like college professors than geishas as they explained that men in power have always been willing to spend fortunes and sacrifice the lives of others in order to amass resources and power. I was amazed at their frankness and attributed it at least in part to the sake, although everything they said made absolute sense. They talked about the importance of the spice trade in the time of the great European explorers and of the role gold had played for centuries.

“Today it's oil,” Nancy continued. “The most precious resource ever. Everything depends on it. Spices and gold were luxuries without much real value. Good to taste, use as a preservative, for jewelry and artifacts. But oil... oil's life itself. Nothing in the modern would works without it. This is the biggest resource grab in history. The stakes are huge. Should we be surprised that men are willing to risk everything to control it? They'll cheat and steal. Build ships and missiles, and send thousands – hundreds of thousands – of young soldiers to die for oil.”

“Is that what you learned in the history books?”

She gave me a smirk. “Of course not. That came from the school of hard knocks.”

“Hard knocks!” Mary was beside herself with laughter. “I can't believe you said that, Nance. That's perfect. I got to remember it. Hard knocks.” She shook her head.

But I was thinking about Charlie and the speech he had given that first night at the restaurant on top of the Hotel Intercontinental about how we had come to Indonesia to save it from Communists and secure oil for the United States. Then my thoughts turned to Claudine, the woman in Boston who had mentored me as an EHM. It occurred to me that she was part of the same tradition as these two Asian American women. I had to wonder if she ever thought of herself as a geisha. My eyes went from the laughing Mary to Nancy, and in that moment I saw Claudine and realized how much I missed her. I wondered whether my infatuation with the woman across the table, my poolside obsession, had grown out of my loneliness and perhaps a subconscious connection I had made between her and Claudine.

I forced myself back to the present. Mary was wiping the laughter from her eyes with her napkin. I spoke to Nancy. “And you. What's your role?”

“We're like those soldiers, expendable but necessary. We serve the Emperor.”

“Who is the Emperor?”

Nancy shot a look at Mary. “We never know. Whoever pays the highest price is our boss.”

“The man at the pool?”

“He's my contact here, not the real boss. He takes me to my clients.”

“In the Hotel Intercontinental?”

“Honeymoon suite.” She giggled, but stopped herself. “Sorry, Mary and I always say that sometime we want a real honeymoon in that suite.” She glanced away toward the curtained window.

I recalled the black sedan that had cruised by, wondering if it's occupant had been looking for one of them. “Only there – your work, the Hotel Intercontinental?”

“Of course not. Country clubs, cruise ships, Hong Kong, Hollywood, Las Vegas... you name it. If oil men and politicians like it, we've been there.”

My eyes roamed from one to the other. They seemed so young-and so worldly. I was twenty-six; I knew from their stories that they were about five years my junior. “Who are your clients?”

Nancy lifted her finger to her lips. She glanced around the restaurant, like a doe I had seen in a New Hampshire field terrified by a dog barking in the distance. “Never,” she said and her voice took on a solemn quality, “ask that question.”

- pages 25-29, The Secret History of the American Empire, by John Perkins

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